Officials in Washington are rubbing their hands in pleasure. Behold, the aggressive policy of the U.S. is proving itself and the three-pronged "axis of evil" that President George W. Bush sketched is breaking apart. The first to depart, after being compelled to do so, of course, was Iraq. It is now becoming clear that the signals the American administration sent via its conquest of Iraq are doing wonders. The proof of this was demonstrated in the announcement by North Korea, about two weeks ago, that it agrees to abandon its nuclear plans. This is ostensibly a great success for the American approach that combines diplomatic pressure with threats of military force. This success leaves Iran as a lone member of the "axis of evil" and, according to the signals sent from the White House, it will not be long before the U.S. also forces it to give up its plans to develop nuclear weapons.
All of this sounds good and promising, but, unfortunately, the picture is much more complex. The road to dismantling North Korea's nuclear infrastructure is still very long, and the road to eliminating the Iranian nuclear program is even longer.
The delegation of Kim Jong-il, the ruler of North Korea, did indeed sign an agreement in Beijing to shut down the North Korean nuclear development program, but the text of the agreement is so general and vague that it is not at all clear what the next steps will be and when these steps will be taken. In light of the international community's bitter experience with Kim's regime, coupled with North Korea's many attempts to renounce agreements it has committed to, it would be a mistake to regard this agreement as a done deal.
At the beginning of November, the "six-nation talks" with Kim Jong-il's representatives will resume in Beijing, in an effort to work out practical steps leading to the eradication of the nuclear program in North Korea. The fact that North Korea rushed to express reservations about the agreement it signed in the Chinese capital, even before the ink of its representatives' signatures had dried, suggests that little can be expected from these talks.
However, if the case of North Korea is complicated and problematic, it seems simple and easy to resolve in comparison to the Iranian one. The regime of the ayatollahs in Tehran continues to mock the international community, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the representatives of Britain, France and Germany who are engaged in prolonged negotiations on halting the development of nuclear weapons. The Iranians are conducting a sophisticated policy of walking on the edge, offering partial concessions and conciliatory declarations while basically succeeding in winning the time needed to bring them to the point of no return - the point at which the Iranians would not require external assistance to complete the process of developing the bomb.
Last week, it seemed like the Iranians stretched the rope too tightly, and the IAEA's board of governors decided to transfer the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council. This was ostensibly another victory for the American administration, which has been pushing for some time to bring the matter before the Security Council, which is authorized to impose sanctions. But the Americans also understand that this is a Pyrrhic victory. The Russians and the Chinese will veto any proposal imposing sanctions on Iran and this makes the Security Council's discussion empty and irrelevant in advance.
When 15 percent of China's oil and gas imports are from Iran, and when Russia's revenues from nuclear projects in Iran amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, it would be naive to expect both of these countries to lend a hand to an economic blow against Iran. When it is clear that sanctions against Iran, one of the largest oil producers in the world, would drive the price of a barrel of oil to about $100, even the U.S. will not insist that the Security Council issue an unequivocal anti-Iranian resolution. The sad conclusion is that Iran will almost certainly continue to develop nuclear weapons.
And there is also the Israeli angle in this affair. The international pressure currently directed against North Korea and Iran is liable to ultimately reach Jerusalem as well. It is not at all clear whether Israel will remain immune from international intervention in its nuclear program and in the arsenal of bombs it harbors, according to foreign sources. Policy makers in Israel must prepare for this possibility and coordinate its moves and policies in this area with the American administration in advance.
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